Airlines begin screening passengers by computer 'Profiles' will determine whose bags are searched

January 01, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Airlines around the United States will begin using computerized screening today to determine which passengers should have their baggage checked for explosives and whether the passengers who are singled out actually checked their bags and boarded a plane.

The system already is drawing critics who say it will lead to discrimination against members of religious or ethnic groups.

The system works by evaluating facts about a passenger and comparing them with a profile of a potential terrorist that was devised by the Federal Aviation Administration and security agencies. Officials decline to spell out the factors but say frequency of travel to certain destinations is among them.

One airline, Northwest, has been using computerized screening for months. Other airlines have used staff members, rather than computers, to screen passengers. During 1998, all major U.S. airlines are expected to switch to computerized "profiling" to identify suspect passengers.

But the American Civil Liberties Union and Arab-American groups say the computerized system will discriminate by using factors such as a passenger's religion, race or national origin in making decisions, and that the Transportation Department has not set up a way to prevent such discrimination.

The ACLU posted a complaint form Tuesday on its Web page that passengers can use if they feel they have been treated unfairly.

The factors used in profiling are secret. "I've got a little list here of what I'm not allowed to talk about," said David Fuscus, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group of the major U.S. airlines. But Fuscus and others deny that religion, race or ethnic group are factors.

"There is no way the system operates that it could discriminate against people," he said, adding that the system had been approved by the Justice Department.

But he acknowledged that travel patterns are significant, so that people who travel often to countries believed to harbor terrorists are more likely to be "profiled."

Sam Husseini, a spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said of the computerized system: "We certainly hope there isn't a field that says 'Arab' but we feel there could be a series of quasi-ethnic questions, like destination, or place of birth."

But Husseini added that profiling had been going on for 20 years, administered by airline employees, and that switching to a computerized system would eliminate the biases of individuals and substitute the bias of a computer formula. It is not clear, he said, which is worse.

The aviation administration and the airlines also will not describe their sources of information on passengers. But the airlines know whom they have carried before and to what destinations; they also know if the ticket was bought by credit card or with cash, and whether the passenger is a member of their frequent-flier programs.

The system is being used because the airlines do not have enough equipment, personnel or time to scan or search each bag and ensure that each bag is accompanied by a passenger.

The administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, Jane Garvey, said in a statement that the changes will "bring security for air travelers in this country to a new level of effectiveness."

The changes follow the recommendation of an aviation safety and security commission headed by Vice President Al Gore a year ago, when the Federal Aviation Administration and other experts believed that TWA Flight 800, a Paris-bound jumbo jet that exploded shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, had been brought down by a bomb.

Now, investigators say they are fairly confident that the cause of the explosion was mechanical or electrical failure, but airlines and airports around the country are still changing procedures and installing new equipment to improve security.

Pub Date: 1/01/98

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